Heart of Louisiana: Fort Jesup

Fort Jesup's original kitchen (La. Office of State Parks)
Fort Jesup's original kitchen (La. Office of State Parks)

Many, La. -- Ten years after Louisiana became a state, the southwest portion of Louisiana was a sort of no man's land, a neutral zone between the United States and Spanish Texas. The area was mostly inhabited by early Spanish settlers.

"Nobody was supposed to settle or live there," says Fort Jesup Park Ranger Jeremy McCormic, "And so they were largely considered outlaws for living in a place where it was illegal to live, although they had been there is some cases for five generations."

America marked its western boundary in 1822 with a large military compound near the present day town of Many. It was called Fort Jesup, and it was built under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor.  The compound provided law and order in the neutral zone for the next 25 years.

"You had soldiers cutting roads," says McCormic, "you had soldiers working on the great red river raft keeping it clear, you had massive mapping going on."

There are detailed drawings of Fort Jesup and its structures.  Of its 80 buildings, only one of the original kitchens is still standing. This is where food was prepared for the 1,500 troops stationed here.

The state has reconstructed the officers quarters.  It contains a few other items – an original quartermaster's desk, weapons and uniforms, and a roster of soldiers.  You can also see the some of the ten-foot-high stone pylons that once supported the soldiers' barracks.

In the early 1840's, half of all of the troops in the U.S. Army came through this Louisiana fort. This was a stop on their way west to fight the war with Mexico.

"Fort Jesup was a training ground for a large chunk of our military also," says McCormic.  "Texas is only 20-some-odd miles from here across the land, so your dragoons and your mounted infantry, they could easily cross into Texas."

During the two years of fighting, Zachary Taylor became a war hero as his better-equipped troops battled Mexican forces.  The war led to setting most of the boundary between the two countries.

Soon after the war with Mexico, General Zachary Taylor was elected the nation's 12th president.  He died in office after only 16 months from a stomach illness.

As the United States stretched its borders to the west, Fort Jesup was abandoned.   Louisiana no longer sat at the edge of the American frontier.

In addition to building Fort Jesup, Zachary Taylor also oversaw the construction of the Pentagon Barracks, a military post near the state capitol in Baton Rouge.  For more information, go online to http://www.crt.state.la.us/parks/iftjesup.aspx.